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What Exactly Does An Editor Do? The Role Has Changed Over Time

30 December 2015

From National Public Radio:

When Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published earlier this year, readers learned that this much anticipated “second book” by Lee was actually a first draft of what would later become the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee radically revised this early version of the book on the advice of her editor, Tay Hohoff. That made us wonder: How much do editors shape the final book we read?

On hearing the news about the role Lee’s editor played in the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird, Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg was surprised at first. The story immediately made him think of legendary editor Max Perkins — who shepherded the works of such greats as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. Berg, who wrote a biography of Perkins, says Perkins had a huge influence on the editors who came after him because of the way he worked with his authors.

“Not only did he change the course of the American literary river, but he changed what editors do by becoming their best friends, their money lenders, their marriage counselors, their psychoanalysts,” Berg says. “And along the way he began offering them titles. He often provided structure for what their novels ought to be. He often gave them whole ideas for what their next book should be.”

That was the way editors interacted with their writers for many years after Perkins came on the scene, Berg says, but now publishing has changed: These days there is more pressure on editors to acquire best-sellers, and they are much more involved in marketing a book. And that, he says, leaves precious little time for actual editing.

“Make no mistake about it: That editor-author relationship is still fundamental to good books,” says Berg. “But it’s not necessarily cost-effective for book editors to invest as much of their time into any single manuscript or any single author and that’s simply because the publishing houses have not encouraged their editors to edit.”

Link to the rest at NPR and thanks to Deb for the tip.

Big Publishing, Editing

22 Comments to “What Exactly Does An Editor Do? The Role Has Changed Over Time”

  1. My editor tries to find all of my typos and put the commas back where they go. She’ll point out something that doesn’t make sense but always leaves the changes up to me. After all it is my story. That’s the writer-editor relationship I like. And if it doesn’t sell or people don’t like it, that’s on me too. As it should be. We need first readers and editors but we really need to be allowed to craft our own stories. IMO.

    I love being an indie.

    • That’s what mine does. She’s beta reader, proofreader (punctuation & spelling), Red Pen with a Cast-iron Skillet, and “Make It Better” suggester.

      We’ve been working together long enough, she knows my quirks, and can suggest changes that do not conflict with my “style.”

      I usually accept her changes and suggestions. Not always, but usually. 🙂

  2. What the BPHs call “Editor” these days most closely resembles what other businesses call Project Managers.

  3. I have the “Synopses Treasury” that came in the NaNo pack from StoryBundle. It’s a collection of the synopses that different writers sent in to pitch their stories to editors. It’s got Frank Herbert, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Heinlein and more.

    In the Herbert and Heinlein ones that I’ve read so far, I was struck by the exchanges between Herbert and Damon Knight and Heinlein and Frederik Pohl. Knight and Pohl come across as good beta readers: They said what they liked, what could be stronger, what was weaker, what could be moved.

    Based on their responses the authors seemed to agree with those changes (I haven’t read the stories in question). I did not get the impression that the editors would have mutilated the stories or insisted on changing them around in ways the authors would have disapproved of.

    I would hope that a good editor would be like a good beta reader, especially if you don’t have a beta reader. That a good line editor would not murder your prose, and a good copy-editor won’t let you look like you don’t rite gud. I’d rather they continue to do those jobs instead of marketing

    • RAH was the beta reader for Niven and Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye.

      • Ah, so that blurb he gave them was sincere. I noticed Frank Herbert blurbed it, too. I finished “The Mote …” over the weekend. I’m still thinking about that story, and how Pournelle & Niven designed the Motie society. Convincingly alien, and it looks so deceptively easy …

    • Yeah, I think there are good editors and bad editors. Sounds like Knight and Pohl were in the former group, which I’ve always thought Perkins was in, like Stephen King and (I want to say) Chuck Verrill. I work with a great editor; she likes the stories I like and reads the genres I read, but she also knows all my linguistic tics and quirks. She doesn’t let me get away with anything, and definitely helps me make my books better.

      But I think there are editors like Gordon Lish and many others who aren’t very good, who take what their authors turn in and force their own vision over the authors. In fact, from experience, I was a bad editor, because I used to read people’s prose and thought I knew how to say what they were trying to say better. I was almost universally wrong.

      I think it’s important for indie authors to find and work with good editors. Beta readers help, for sure, but for me I think it’s exceedingly important to have one or two (and only one or two) peers whom you trust in a capacity to go far deeper than beta reading. When I think of beta readers I think of five or ten people to whom one sends an already gone-over draft and then reads some decent but basic feedback taken into account for revision.

      • Agree, I like the Knight/Pohl type of editor. I think I was also a bad editor, in one case I just assembled the writer’s story for her rather than coaching her. In another case it couldn’t be helped, but I believe I did the first writer a disservice.

        When I think of beta readers I think of five or ten people to whom one sends an already gone-over draft and then reads some decent but basic feedback taken into account for revision.

        Going by that definition, then I would agree an editor is better. It’s the deeper read that I’m looking for.

  4. ‘Make no mistake about it: That editor-author relationship is still fundamental to good books,’ says Berg. ‘But it’s not necessarily cost-effective for book editors to invest as much of their time into any single manuscript or any single author and that’s simply because the publishing houses have not encouraged their editors to edit.’

    If the second part of that is true, the first part isn’t. Not in that world, anyway.

    • And I’d have to say, based on the part you quoted, Michael, that real, honest-to-God nurturing–that nurturing the publishing houses love to brag about–is a thing of the past.

      • I am reminded of a bit from Jack Pulman’s screenplay for I, Claudius. The emperor’s herald, a former actor, is bitterly explaining to a poet why he gave up the stage: ‘The theatre’s not what it was.’

        ‘No,’ says the poet. ‘And you know what? It never was what it was.’

        ‘Nurturing’ by publishers is one of those things. It never was what it was. The legend was largely got up for PR purposes; it never bore any strong resemblance to the reality.

  5. ‘Make no mistake about it: That editor-author relationship is still fundamental to good books,’ says Berg.

    I suppose one subset of consumers agrees. But I wonder if a larger subset will judge books good even if they don’t have an editor who shepherds books. Consumers care about the product, not the production process.

  6. There is no need for an editor. None. Beta readers are good readers across many many books and genres and have useful comments. A copy editor for punctuation/ grammar if one needs it. I personally dont take umbrage at some great writer’s use or not use of a comma. I frankly dont give a d. Editors are like buggy whips, without the whip part, in my experience, humbly said.

    big 5 Book editors have not for nearly two decades “invested time’ in author/ms. More like Nordstroms customer service, on each call for no more than 1.5 minutes or similar.

    Talented editors are few and far between just like any other profession. Out of several, just speaking personally, I’ve two who were superb and who I have a many decades long friendship with., The others were venal, or filled with conceit, or challenging authors to seem ‘important’ when in fact coming off as anklebiters with no sense of proportion, or wanting to fight to raise themselves out of their depressions, or desperately straining to ‘win awards’ for their editing, or trying to live off the success of others, or acting as though they were granding a kingship on an author without mentioning of course the contract they themselves negotiated takes about 92% of the proceeds [authors ought never be grateful for such pittance] or so taken with their penthouses in ‘hattan’ that they wouldnt know a horse from a house if it rose by.

    Max Perkins was a fine pal and also sometimes an enabler of drunks and child abusers and more. One can wax poetic about him and his paternalistic wyas with grown men into his ‘stable’ as it was disrespectfully called. But that is not and has not been ‘editing’ since it occured. It was more like a halfway house, a daddy to the grown, a man who loved to control what he could not do himself. Lionize him? Ok, But he’s more lie than lion in my .02

    • I recall (but alas, don’t know where to find it now) reading a summary of a research paper on Maxwell Perkins’ editorial work. Instead of accepting his reputation at face value, the author of the paper actually dug up the original manuscripts of a bunch of famous novels edited by Perkins. Legend has it that the manuscripts were shapeless clay, unpublishable raw material, and the genius of Perkins made them great. The reality turned out to be rather different. Some manuscripts that were self-indulgent and windy, according to the legend, turned out to be merely long, and much good material was lost in cutting to an arbitrary length.

      In effect, Perkins’ assignment seems to have been roughly this: ‘You shall publish Great and Important Works of American Literature, and if it costs more than X cents per copy to print them, you’re fired.’

      • appreciate that intelligence TS. Inside the parts of pub I’ve been in, it became clear that the book about Perkins didnt jibe with what ‘surviving’ editors thought about it all.

        It would be interesting to see the full original mss. There was, you pointed out, a time when a certain length and price ceiling was considered the moneymaking jazz of Perkin’s time.

        It’s still there. Too many editors consult with marketing and decide length and pricepoint in advance of ms being accepted. We’ve wrangled on this with one big five and finally broke contract and walked away. Not worth it to have them try to stuff a horse into a birdhouse. Better off being free. Come whatever.

    • There is no need for an editor. None.

      I disagree.

      Finding the right editor is an arduous task. My editor points out to me ‘this works, this doesn’t’. She does no proofreading; that is, typos and punctuation are my lookout. I freely acknowledge that her input makes my work better. I trust her judgment more than that of an army of beta readers.

      • we use beta readers, all of whom are great editors. They do the same; point out–their opinions. It is fine. And in fact, they have the time to read deeply and well and are readers of many many books by others for the love of reading, not just a book they are working ‘on.’ Trad editors? No, we no longer use them. They are expensive and beta readers create an ongoing community. That you really trust your ed, is great. What works best for you, would ever be the best, I think.

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